Home-sharing's time returns

First published in Newsday Pushed along by those twins of the Great Recession -- unemployment and foreclosure -- America may be moving back under the multigenerational roof.

At a recent reunion of high school friends, I talked to one who had returned to her mother's house, along with her brother and sister. The whole family was back together again, this time with grandchildren added to the mix. It was a disaster. The siblings were fighting as much as they had in high school.

Another friend's son was enlisting in the Army to avoid moving back into her home after graduation. The Census Bureau says that 54 million Americans were living in multigenerational families in 2010, up from 49 million two years earlier. That's the highest count since 1968.

Of course, it's nothing new for large extended families to live under one roof. In many parts of the world, it's the norm. In this country, Asians and Hispanics have higher rates of multigenerational living, perhaps reflecting greater cultural acceptance.

But for the most part, since the 1950s, the American middle class has assumed that one is up and out at 18. Each nuclear family, according to this standard, had its own home.

And that attitude can make moving back in together -- or "doubling up" in demographers' terms -- feel like a step backward. It can be a sign of financial desperation, a response to unemployment, lack of child care or health care, or affordable rents.

But there are many advantages that generations can offer one another: care-taking for the young or old, emotional support and the sharing of life lessons. Those benefits -- as well as the financial considerations -- are what led the Huntington-based Family Service League, a social services agency, to create its HomeShare program, which matches older adults with someone who could use their spare bedroom.

Artist Milton Colón, 47, heard about the program through Fountainhead Church in East Northport. He is sharing the Smithtown home of Meinhard and Aino Joks, who are 86 and 85. Colón does the laundry, cooking, bed-making and errands, allowing the Jokses to stay in their home even though their home health care benefits have run out.

In turn, the Jokses have given him shelter and stability. Colón's wife of 22 years died in 2008, of an accidental overdose, and he fell apart. He began living out of his car.

While she was alive, Colón had made a living painting portraits. He was as busy as he wanted to be -- before the recession drained his Brentwood business of customers.

The Jokses are from Estonia and Finland and tell him stories of their emigration after World War II. "I'm a World War II history buff," Colón says. "So, that's something we share. I love history. I could take it in all day."

In the evenings, he works at a basement desk on a comic strip that he's developing. It's about a proud Puerto Rican father named Flores who moves his family from Brooklyn to the suburbs -- "Flowers in Blue," Colón's own story. His new home with the Jokses not only tethers him back to family life, it gives him an artist's freedom from financial worries.

That's the facet of multigenerational living that is not often expressed. We all know about the tensions and bickering -- the fall from the ideal after having somehow slipped off the path to the single-family home. But there is sweetness, too.

So why not make the best of what, for some, has become the new American reality? With 8.8 percent unemployment and 2.36 million homes foreclosed by banks between 2007 and 2010, the middle class is struggling. Independent living may be an American value, but so is helping each other through hard times.